Visiting Madison’s Montpelier & The Big Woods

To read the previous story in this series, Click Here: George Washington The Farmer (Part 2)

I have been writing about my recent vacation to Virginia. After seeing Mount Vernon, my two sons and I drove south, out of the crowded DC suburbs, to Orange, Virginia, near Charlottesville, within sight of the Blue Ridge Mountains, near where John-boy Walton grew up.

But long before John-boy, or his "Daddy," or even Grandpa Walton, this area was home to three U.S. Presidents: Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe. We visited the homes of each of these men, beginning with Madison's Montpelier.

James Madison was our fourth president and he was known as the “Father of the Constitution.” That title was not given to him by historians. It was what his contemporaries said of him.

At only 5ft 4in. tall, Madison was 10” shorter than Washington and Jefferson, and he was soft spoken, but he had a brilliant mind and a perspicacious grasp of history. While many founders of our nation believed that a Republican form of government would not work in a large and growing nation with different regional interests, Madison believed that a Republic was actually the ideal form of government. One of Madison’s more famous statements about “pure democracy” is found in The Federalist Paper #10:

Hence it is, that such Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.

Standing in James Madison’s library at Montpelier, our tour guide told us that the room was where Madison spent so many hours reading and studying history and putting together his ideas and proposals about how our government should be structured. He compiled his ideas into what is known as the “Virginia Plan.” The floor boards under where his desk once was are still stained with blotches of ink from his pen.

Madison was just 36 years old when he went to the Constitutional Convention that was convened in the spring of 1787. The reason for the convention was to revise and improve the “Articles of Confederation” which was the governing document at that time for the union of thirteen sovereign colonies. But right from the start, Madison’s Virginia Plan was proposed and the Convention veered into a new direction. Instead of fixing the Articles of Confederation, the 55 delegates spent the long, hot summer hammering out a whole new form of government, embodied in a new document called the “Constitution of the United States.”

I asked our tour guide if Madison was the person who came up with the idea of the electoral college. She didn’t know. I have since found out that Madison’s Virginia Plan called for election of the President by the Legislature. Wiser minds prevailed.

Some people were not happy with the “hijacking” of the Convention in 1787 and the new Constitutional form of government. Patrick Henry (another famous Virginia patriot) was among them. He was suspicious of any plan that gave more power to a central government. It was Patrick Henry’s strong protestations that helped to bring about the first ten amendments to the Constitution, otherwise known as The Bill of Rights. I like Patrick Henry. But I like Madison too.

Several years ago there was talk of convening another Constitutional Convention to “update” our American form of government. Were this to ever occur, there is no telling what might happen. A completely new form of government might emerge. The precedent for such an outcome was set in 1787. But back then, we had men of remarkable integrity and wisdom “steering the ship.” I shudder to think what might happen in this day and age with so many corporate lobbyists, manipulating media, and addle-brained, self-serving politicians.

Before I go too far down that rabbit trail, I’d better get back to our Montpelier visit. Here is a quote from James Madison that I found in the Montpelier museum:
”First and foremost, I consider myself a farmer.”
It is reported that Thomas Jefferson referred to Madison as “the best farmer in the world.”

Here is a picture I took of Farmer Madison’s home:

And here is a picture looking west from the front of the home. All the land you see, except the Blue Ridge Mountains in the far distance, is part of the current 2,650 acre estate.

Madison’s home is noticeably larger and grander than Washington’s Mount Vernon. In many respects, I liked it better. Perhaps it was the secluded setting, the long, winding, private drive, and the western panorama on such a nice day in October. Perhaps it was the fact that far fewer tourists were there than at Mount Vernon. Or maybe it was Montpelier’s old-growth forest. I’m sure that was part of it—James Madison Landmark Forest was actually what drew me to Montpelier in the first place. Everything else was just icing on the cake.

I would like to someday walk through a virgin forest, which is a stand of woodland that has never been harvested. The next best thing is an old-growth forest—a place where no logging has been done for a very long time. In the case of Montpelier’s old growth forest, it has not been logged in more than 200 years. Woods like that are rare in this day and age.

Needless to say, there are a lot of big trees in an old growth forest. They are big around and tall. Were you to cut one down, you would find many growth rings, very densely layered. Here are some pictures of me and my sons in the Madison Landmark Forest:

Unlike Mount Vernon, which was owned only by generations of Washington decedents before being turned over to a preservation group, Montpelier has had numerous owners up until 1984, when Marion duPont Scott willed it to the national Trust for Historic Preservation. Marion and her brother moved to the home when her parents (William and Annie duPont) bought the place in 1901 She was eight years old and never really left.

William duPont expanded the original Madison home from 22 rooms to 55 and added 12 bathrooms. When the historic trust took over, they removed everything the duPont family added to the home, including all those bathrooms (the Madison family used only chamber pots). When Marion and her brother moved to Montpelier in 1901 they wanted ponies. Marion grew up to raise and race thoroughbred horses at Montpelier, the most famous of which was named “Battleship.” There is a gallery at the Montpelier museum that tells the duPont story.

I suspect that if people who “needed money” had owned the estate, that old-growth forest would not have been preserved, and neither would the vast amount of acreage.
To read the next story in this series, Click Here: Visiting Thomas Jefferson's Monticello (Part 1)


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article. I am taking my mom from California to Mountpelier tomorrow Sunday. I enjoyed Your perspective! God Bless

Carla Hays said...

Every day I look forward to your "travelogue". What a wonderful trip! Your boys are lucky to have a Dad who cares enough to show them (as opposed to "tell") the way of life he loves. You have given them such a history lesson of how this country was born,letting them see the agrarian men who had a dream, and acted upon it, often risking much to realize that dream. I can't wait to read about Jefferson and his home.

Carla Hays